“This is such an insane time,” says Danielia Cotton. “It seems so unreal. It’s like apocalyptic or something.”
Cotton knows the difference between real and unreal. This passionate talent from Hopewell is as real as they come and has recently added a tenth album to her catalog of incredibly honest and open work.
A woman not afraid to voice her opinions — be it in discussion or in song — and tackle tough subjects while sticking to her convictions, Cotton is a rare find in today’s entertainment industry.
Her six-song A Different War EP marks her foray into a political direction, and even though she is confident, she realizes that she is walking something of a fine line.
“You have to be very careful with the political line that you ride when you’re doing articles like this, because you really can’t be political anymore,” she says. “I mean, you could if you want to, but I think for artists like me, you struggle with that because your social media gets affected if you stand on the wrong side.
“I think in the ’60s and ’70s, it was a little bit easier to be more vocal and you weren’t ostracized or alienated by stating a political opinion, even if yours was different from everybody else. So this is the first time that I’ve done a sort of socially conscious thing, but I now have a 2-year-old who is biracial and Jewish and antisemitism is on the rise, just like racism, so she will experience a lot. It’s an issue that’s a little closer to me now, especially bringing her into the world at this point.”
The EP’s first single, “Forgive Me,” is not political, “but the title track is about racism,” she says. ” ‘Cheap High’ is about the economic issues and our economic situation, which is why racism is high, because when you have economic instability in a country, racism always spikes.”
Growing up in Hopewell, a predominantly white, mostly rural community in the Sourland Mountains region, Cotton was one of only a handful of black students at her high school. The daughter of jazz singer Wenonah Brooks, she grew up with affection for jazz, gospel and rock music. She graduated at the top of her class and received a full college scholarship, but racism haunted her and does so to this day.
“In the song ‘A Different War,’ it’s more like … a conversation between someone black and someone who is white in the first verse. And the second verse is applicable to anyone who is not white or not straight, anybody who’s not down the middle, and it’s more like, you say things are one way but ‘Your color opens doors and mine is fighting a different war.’
“It’s like walking in another man’s shoes. You wouldn’t know what it’s like. You’d have to walk in my shoes and you wouldn’t for a minute really want to do that, if you knew what that entailed. So it’s a difficult thing for people who aren’t white. I think it’s kind of where we are and it’s the current climate. I think people are oblivious at times and sometimes get offended, but I think they are unrealistic about what’s going on, and I think if we don’t educate ourselves in some sense and way, things will just remain the same.
“There’s two blues tracks on this album, which are sort of in the complete other direction: sort of an ode to love and the greatness of it. So there you go. Which is life: So it includes all aspects of my life. The racism, the feminist (and) economic. I live in Tribeca and there’s that struggle. We are applying for schools for my daughter, and with most of them, she’s the only biracial Jewish kid applying, and she’s on a waiting list. You would think that they’d like a child like that to attend, to add more diversity, but I’m a bit surprised that’s not the case. That’s Greek to me. I don’t understand society: In one sense, it seems like we want to progress, but then we are not willing to make the strides to do so, and so it makes me believe that everything is just said in vain. People say they want things to get better, but then they don’t want to do the hard things that entails, which sometimes is just opening up the communication lines and asking the other side how they feel, and what it is that they do we feel alienates them. Just open up the conversation, even if it’s intense at the beginning. Open up the lines so that we can talk and see where we are not connecting.
” ‘Oh, we didn’t know that offended you black people.’ ‘Okay, now you know, now you’re educated.’ So I think that talking to each other, understanding each other on some level is really the way to go. You can’t assume how another side feels.”
So is this what she’s trying to accomplish with the new EP? Is she trying to convey that message and start a dialog?
“Yes! That’s a great thing,” she said. “I’m telling you how I feel on my side and that’s a big thing, and I’m telling you that I’m speaking from my position, from being a black female and experiencing it. I’m speaking from the front line (laughs), so you have a sense. Do you want to hear?
” ‘A Different War’ asks: Listen up, do you want to hear their truths? Do you want to hear what they have to say? Do you want them to tell you how they feel?”
Despite her multiple releases, Cotton considers herself something of a late bloomer. However, she also knows that it was how it was supposed to be, and says she’d have it no other way, especially when it comes to her fans and her support system.
“What people don’t realize is that I went to college and then I started gigging, so I got into this late,” she says. “It’s not like I’d have as many (albums) out as people who started earlier. I went to college and did my thing. What I’ve done personally is not as much as some, because I got into the game a little late, but I think it was for good reason. I’m glad my mom told me to do what I had to do. She said, ‘You’re going to college or you can fight me or whatever,’ and believe me I tried to quit, and she said, ‘Don’t even think about it.’ (laughs)
“I never have any fear that my mother isn’t a fan or my family, period. They have been incredibly supportive and just really awesome, so yeah, they’re on the front lines. My brother is always with me and actually co-produced this album with me and my manager, and he has been behind the scenes since the beginning to keep me in line, to fight for my sound more than anyone I know. I love him to death. Hands down biggest fan ever. … ‘Don’t let them make you be something you’re not, Danielia, you’ll regret it.’ … I don’t know how to explain that, but my fans should be thankful that I have that in my ear. Sometimes it’s hard because you fight the industry, and he is like, ‘Don’t you want to just put your head on the pillow at night and know you did it the way you wanted to? You’ll never be able to come back from that …’ And he’s right and I love him for that.
“It takes people and fans to also believe in what you’re doing and keeping you going … It’s people like my brother in my ear, it’s the fans appreciating you being true to what you want, and honestly, the truth speaks volumes.”
The pandemic has caused cancellations worldwide, and Cotton is feeling the effects as well. Most artists release new material and are excited to get out on the road and test it on their fan base, but that’s not possible given the current climate.
“I feel really sorry for the people who had major tours,” she said. “This was a big thing. People like Grace Potter and others had major tours. I had tour dates but not to the degree that they had, but I was also on my way to dropping an album. I mean, right now ‘Forgive Me’ is doing really well, but I’ll never know what that means because I can’t go to those cities and places where radio stations are playing it the most and be like, ‘Hey. let me get a gig here,’ because nobody is booking anything without knowing how this is going to play out.
“So I’m going to do online concerts in my house. Hopewell Theater reached out and we’re thinking that what I would do is ride down in my car by myself … I would plug in and the sound and light guys would all be six feet away and we could all have social distance. We would not ever have to touch each other or be in a bad spot, and then I’d leave. I want to help theaters and places like that, because venues are struggling and I want to help them, too.”
Ah, but there is one activity that she plans on doing in the great outdoors, one that this situation has actually shaped in a good way.
“We’re about to do a video for ‘Cheap High’ and we are going to do it downtown and socially distance the video because we can’t get a more potent set or a greater backdrop than empty retail shops, when you’re talking about the economics of things and money and how it can be a cheap high, and then it’s gone.”
So A Different War has Danielia Cotton all dressed up with literally no place to go. But much like in the past, she has the tools to persevere.
Fore more about Cotton, visit danieliacotton.com.
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of $20, or any other amount, to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.